Does Sorry Seem To Be The Hardest Word? Why Some People Just Can't Apologize

Making a mistake can be an awful feeling. Then, while you're dealing with the distress, you also have to contend with the decision to admit you were in the wrong. Even though we're taught from childhood to say "sorry" when we hurt someone, apologies can become more difficult when we're adults and don't have someone coaching us, especially if a fight with a partner led to something we never should have said, for instance. 

Nearly everyone misses an opportunity to apologize at some stage in their life. Sometimes we convince ourselves that the situation wasn't really a big deal, or that we didn't actually do anything wrong. Other times we brush it off, convincing ourselves that an apology won't make a difference, or that we aren't really that invested in our relationship with the other person anyway. 

Apologizing is rarely easy, but it is an important life skill that (hopefully) gets easier with practice. However, sometimes we encounter people who never seem to make the effort. While these situations often lead to even more hurt and frustration, it can be helpful to understand the reasons behind this behavior. 

A fragile sense of self can make apologizing difficult

Some people are consistently unable to deliver an apology when they make a mistake. According to licensed psychologist Guy Winch, "Admitting wrongdoing and offering an apology is too psychologically threatening. Offering an apology implies that they've harmed another person in some way, which can elicit feelings of shame," (via Ted). By saying we're sorry for our behavior, our self-esteem is dinged. For someone whose self-esteem is already less than optimal, this process can be so overwhelming that they end up feeling completely stuck. 

In addition, sometimes the nature of the offense can make it harder for someone to own up to their wrongdoing. "To the extent that something you did threatens your self-image, especially as a moral person or a good partner, apologizing puts you in a tough situation," psychologist Karina Schumann told Mindful. The problem is getting over that initial, uncomfortable barrier of humiliation. If you can admit your error, you'll give yourself a positive boost by demonstrating you're up to the challenge.

When dealing with someone who refuses to apologize, there are strategies for making the situation more productive. Even though it's difficult, psychologists advise keeping your cool. Reacting in anger can make a tough situation worse and make it even less likely the other person will apologize. In addition, rather than arguing, opt to forgive and forget. Even if the other person doesn't make a verbal apology, their behavior may demonstrate that they are trying to make amends.

How to craft a thoughtful, heartfelt apology

Apologizing may be uncomfortable, but building this skill has a huge payoff. "Offering an apology can feel like an admission of failure or a sign of weakness when, in reality, it's a sign of strength," Dr. Roberta Babb, a registered clinical psychologist, clarified to Stylist. She also noted, "It takes courage to face our capacity to be hurtful and destructive." Following up on a mistake with a genuine apology can help you feel better about yourself and deepen your relationships with family and friends.

When making an apology, psychologist Karina Schumann recommends keeping it simple by taking ownership of your mistake. Next, discuss a concrete way that you can move forward together. Sometimes this entails fixing or replacing an item you broke. In other situations, it may mean a pledge to simply work at changing the behavior that caused harm. You don't have to make these decisions solo, either. Speak with the person you're apologizing to, and get their input on what would be most helpful.  

In addition, strive to frame your apology by using "I" statements. Resist the temptation to make excuses for your behavior or use "but" in an effort to try to minimize or gloss over your wrongdoing. However, you can offer a reason for your actions if applicable. This insight could help illuminate the situation as long as it doesn't attempt to shift the blame onto the person receiving the apology.